Renewable Roundup: Making solar more sustainable (Through recycling and other means)

  • Published on June 15th, 2020

Sustainability means different things to different stakeholders. It can be mining and recycling of materials, and it can be the quite different question of a sustainable global economy that brings prosperity and other benefits to billions more people. It can be the question of profitability of investments in renewable energy, electric vehicles, sustainable agriculture, carbon-free manufacturing, and more. Or, of course, it could be bogus Denialism and gaslighting and purity trolling, which we will ignore today.

Geronimo Energy is leading the solar energy revolution in South Dakota (photo cropped, via Geronimo Energy).

By Mokurai

Does solar sustainability go far enough?

Solar PV is on track to become a terawatt-scale industry. With this opportunity comes challenges, particularly when future raw material and manufacturing volumes are considered. For progress to be made, sustainability becomes a crucial issue. Already the first global sustainability standard for solar modules and inverters has been introduced, and it is likely mandatory measures will be applied in Europe via the Ecodesign directive. Ahead of the upcoming pv magazine Roundtable on sustainability, SMA answers some key questions about certification.

2015 was a historical year for the climate, with the unveiling of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; and the Paris Agreement, which saw 193 countries committing to undertaking ambitious efforts to tackle climate change, by chiefly focusing on achieving zero emissions.

Since 2018, the public’s calls for sustainable change have also intensified, bringing with it a new climate movement.

Solar and energy storage sit at the heart of the required transition. In addition to not being exempt from the risks of climate change, like disrupted business operations or increased prices of finite raw materials, the industries should also not be satisfied with simply manufacturing products that go on to generate or store PV energy.

Demand for verifiably sustainable products is growing not just with direct customers (installers) says Jürgen Reinert, CEO of SMA Solar Technology, but also with end consumers.

Thus, the industries’ goal is two-fold: To deploy as much PV capacity as quickly as possible, and to pioneer a new way of doing business, which focuses on clean manufacturing and sustainable business strategies.

This discussion sets the stage for the second session, which will focus on certification. In addition to examining how the first sustainability standard – NSF/ANSI 457-2019: Sustainability Leadership Standard for Photovoltaic Modules and Photovoltaic Inverters – was born in the United States, we will also discuss its integration into the EPEAT registry, and how this will help launch it onto a global platform.

Europe and the Ecodesign directive, which is likely to become mandatory for solar manufacturers, will be a further focus. Overall, we will ask if the standards go far enough, and how often they should be reviewed.

Raw Materials


Silicon of 96–99% purity is made by reducing quartzite or sand with highly pure coke.

The carbon can then be extracted. This does not have to result in COemissions.

There is other chemistry along the way to pure silicon suitable for integrated circuits and solar panels. The industry knows how to manage it all to prevent pollution, but we have to stay on top of the industry in the less-responsible countries, like China.

Michael Moore claims that this is all unacceptable, as though quartz mining were as polluting as burning coal. But I said that we wouldn’t get into that today, so I’ll just say



Lithium production has greatly increased since the end of World War II. The metal is separated from other elements in igneous minerals. The metal is produced through electrolysis from a mixture of fused 55% lithium chloride and 45% potassium chloride at about 450 °C.[90]

As of 2015, most of the world’s lithium production is in South America, where lithium-containing brine is extracted from underground pools and concentrated by solar evaporation. The standard extraction technique is to evaporate water from brine. Each batch takes from 18 to 24 months.

Lithium is highly recyclable.


The main ores of cobalt are cobaltite, erythrite, glaucodot and skutterudite , but most cobalt is obtained by reducing the cobalt by-products of nickel and copper mining and smelting.

In 2005, the top producer of cobalt was the copper deposits in the Democratic Republic of the Congo‘s Katanga Province. Formerly Shaba province, the area had almost 40% of global reserves, reported the British Geological Survey in 2009.[59] By 2015, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) supplied 60% of world cobalt production, 32,000 tons at $20,000 to $26,000 per ton. Recent growth in production could at least partly be due to how low mining production fell during DRC Congo’s very violent civil wars in the early 2000s, or to the changes the country made to its Mining Code in 2002 to encourage foreign and multinational investment and which did bring in a number of investors, including Glencore.

Human rights activists have alleged, and investigative journalism reported confirmation,[63][64] that child labor is used in mining cobalt from African artisanal mines.[60][65] This revelation prompted cell phone maker Apple Inc., on March 3, 2017, to stop buying ore from suppliers such as Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt who source from artisanal mines in the DRC, and begin using only suppliers that are verified to meet its workplace standards.[66][67]

Battery technologists like Tesla are working hard on cobalt-free battery chemistry. Computer batteries, which do not have such stringent weight requirements, have no reason to contain cobalt. One Laptop Per Child and MIT pioneered lithium-iron-phosphorus batteries (LiFeP), which “decay to fertilizer”.

Rare Earth/Transition Metals


The lanthanide series of chemical elements comprises the 15 metallic chemical elements with atomic numbers 57–71, from lanthanum through lutetium.These elements, along with the chemically similar elements scandium and yttrium, are often collectively known as the rare earth elements.

They were discovered in rare earth minerals, but they are not rare. China dominates production, and has a disastrous environmental record with them.

Lanthanide elements and their compounds have many uses but the quantities consumed are relatively small in comparison to other elements. About 15000 ton/year of the lanthanides are consumed as catalysts and in the production of glasses. This 15000 tons corresponds to about 85% of the lanthanide production. From the perspective of value, however, applications in phosphors and magnets are more important.

Magnets made with lanthanides are a key part of wind turbines.

Rare-earth element

As a result of the increased demand and tightening restrictions on exports of the metals from China, some countries are stockpiling rare-earth resources.[49] Searches for alternative sources in AustraliaBrazilCanadaSouth AfricaTanzaniaGreenland, and the United States are ongoing.[50] Mines in these countries were closed when China undercut world prices in the 1990s, and it will take a few years to restart production as there are many barriers to entry.[37] One example is the Mountain Pass mine in California, which announced its resumption of operations on a start-up basis on August 27, 2012.[28][51] Other significant sites under development outside of China include Steenkampskraal in South Africa, the world’s highest grade rare earths and thorium mine, which is gearing to go back into production. Over 80% of the infrastructure is already complete.[52] Other mines include the Nolans Project in Central Australia, the Bokan Mountain project in Alaska, the remote Hoidas Lake project in northern Canada,[53] and the Mount Weld project in Australia.[28][51][54] The Hoidas Lake project has the potential to supply about 10% of the $1 billion of REE consumption that occurs in North America every year.[55] Vietnam signed an agreement in October 2010 to supply Japan with rare earths[56] from its northwestern Lai Châu Province.[57]


The Opportunities of Solar Panel Recycling

What Happens to PV Panels When Their Life Cycle Ends

Circular Economy: Blade recycling is a top priority for the wind industry

Recycling rare earth metals is key to sustaining direct drive turbines

Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)

Everything is intertwined.

  • Goal 1: No Poverty
  • Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy
  • Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • Goal 13: Climate Action
  • Goal 17: Partnerships

IPCC: 1.5°C limit needs rapid and far-reaching action, but enables SDG progress

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released a new report on different ways global warming can be kept within the 1.5°C limit. The panel seeks to inform policymakers before the upcoming COP24 in Poland this December. Resulting from their analysis, the 91 authors state that drastic action and significant investments are needed. Such climate action across all sectors would have significant positive effects on sustainable development progress, they say.

With the COP24 in Katowice in Poland just around the corner, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released a new report assessing the current efforts in climate change mitigation, and calculating the costs and benefits of staying with a 1.5°C warming scenario, compared to a 2°C scenario.

Until 2035, the world would need to invest US$2.4 trillion for the transition of the industrial, energy, agricultural, residential and transport sectors. For the energy sector, the panel recognized the critical role solar PV and storage are playing, as system costs for both have plummeted over the last years, making it a highly affordable source of energy, also for regions where there had been no access to electricity, so far.

A report by DNV GL presented a corresponding calculation of the costs of the energy transition. According to DNV GL, overall global energy expenditure will increase by 33%, from $4.5 trillion in 2016, up to $6 trillion in 2050. However, because global GDP is also expected to rise by a significant 130%, the proportion of global GDP invested in the world energy systems will decrease from 5.5% in 2016, down to 3.1% in 2050.

The IPCC estimates that between 2015 and 2050, the average energy-related mitigation investment needed to stay within 1.5°C target would need to be around $900 billion per year. In its analysis, the panel considers six different pathways to reach this target, for which the investments differ within the range of $180 billion to $1,800 billion.

Furthermore, especially solar PV in combination with battery systems are lauded as a cheap, easy to use and flexible energy resource. The authors laud its versatility, citing 19 million installations in Bangladesh, to demonstrate how this technology could be installed with relative ease in low-income areas and is simple enough to be used by the masses.

Growth in storage technologies is also considered a key driver of this development. The panel considers the majority of installed storage capacity to fulfill the function of grid flexibility resources (GFR).

Though grid-connected battery storage comprises a mere 1.7 GW, the authors also recognize the technology’s enormous growth over the last years. They link the growth to cost reduction as a result of mass EV production in the last years. The report further establishes that currently, examined alternative storage technologies, other than lithium-ion, bear potential, but are outcompeted by lithium-ions cost advantage due to its high degree of commercial maturity.

(Crossposted with DailyKos.)

About the Author

Generalist BA, Math and Philosophy Peace Corps, South Korea Buddhist monastic training High-tech market analyst Tech Writer Serial NGO Founder Education for a billion children End poverty at a profit

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